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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 04:57 GMT 05:57 UK
St Petersburg's chance to shine

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News Online in St Petersburg

Rockers on the streets of St Petersburg
The city has emerged as Russia's rock music capital

Following the lavish celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the Russian city of St Petersburg, attended by the world's leaders, BBC News Online's Patrick Jackson looks at how the Russian president has encouraged his home city's thriving arts scene.

If Russia likes to sell its second city as one huge architectural museum, the designers are down at the museum for ideas.

It cannot match Moscow for funding, but St Petersburg aims to be a centre of modern culture, as fashion designer Vladimir Bukhinnik explains to me over some of the city's famous black coffees.

"Compared to Kiev or Moscow, Peter is only 300-years-old but there is such a concentration of history and energy here that the city is unique," he says.

For those who mainly associate the city with the classical arts, things are looking up too, as art giants such as the Russian Museum find new funding to maintain and expand their collections.

The old rivalry with the capital matters little to Mr Bukhinnik, who sees St Petersburg in terms of the Italian cities of Milan or Venice in relation to Rome.

Nevertheless, he believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprecedented decision to invite so many world leaders to the 300th anniversary celebrations is a clear signal that the Russian president means to make his home city the country's diplomatic and cultural centre.

Driving force

If one thing marks out all St Petersburg designers, good or bad, Mr Bukhinnik says, it is that they make an effort to visit Europe at least once a year - even if it means spending their last roubles on the trip - to get new information and experience.

Vladimir Bukhinnik [picture by Pavel Pogodin]
Bukhinnik is one of Russia's most original and prominent fashion designers

A designer, as he sees it, is someone who tries to do something new but at the same time is constantly learning, because the world does not stand still.

"This is a city which forces you to strive towards something," he tells me.

"This place just does not allow you to be amateurish or stupid or frivolous!"

Vladimir Bukhinnik is one of Russia's most original and prominent fashion designers, his work a hymn of praise to womankind.

As a theatre designer, his designs figure in many productions now running in Moscow - where the money is, he says - and he recently made costumes for the clown Slava Polunin's long-awaited follow-up to the Snow Show - known provisionally as Diabolo.

He has also designed in the music world for Russian rock bands such as Kolibri and, further afield, Brian Eno and Marc Almond, working on the video for the latter's so-called Russian album.

Moscow designers, he says, are more inclined to imitate Western fashion, as it is more lucrative in the short term, while those in his city prefer the harder path of nurturing their own style.

Fresh talent

St Petersburg's annual Admiralty Needle student fashion contest encourages young designers from all over the country.

Senior official at Russian Museum Isabella Muravyova in front of painting
The Russian Museum has more than 400,000 works of art

It has, Mr Bukhinnik says, recently brought to light a wealth of design talent, especially in the design institutes of the west Siberian cities of Tomsk and Omsk.

Moscow, Mr Bukhinnik argues, acts as the parade ground for new ideas in the arts because it has the money and the commercial drive, but St Petersburg and other Russian cities breed the ideas.

It is much the same picture for fine art, cinema and music.

The city has emerged over the past two decades as Russia's rock capital, thanks to legendary bands such as DDT and Aquarium, while lavishly promoted "popsa", or pop, has drowned out the music scene in Moscow.

DDT, in particular, has ploughed its resources back into promoting talent from as far away as the war-ravaged Chechen capital Grozny by organising national music festivals and providing little-known groups with recording contracts.

Leningrad, Russia's scandalous top ska band, has reportedly been banned from playing Moscow three times now because of its penchant for swearing, while in its home city it enjoys a status similar to Irish band the Pogues in the numerous music clubs.

New money

The Russian Museum, the country's chief national art gallery, also has an eye for the new, meeting each Wednesday to purchase works by contemporary artists to join the Repins and Baksts which grace its elegant pre-revolutionary halls.

Arts promotion in Palace Square
Officials say Putin has contributed greatly to the city's promotion

New funding, in the form of domestic sponsors such as a "friends of the museum" network and revenue from foreign tours, also allows it to maintain its buildings.

The museum now boasts some 400,000 works of art, including a unique collection of Soviet avant-garde art, Isabella Muravyova, a senior official in the museum's visitors' department, tells me.

Asked what having a Petersburger in the Kremlin has meant for the city's museums, she replies that the president has contributed enormously to their promotion.

"From the very start, Putin has been using our museum and the Hermitage as venues for receiving foreign dignitaries," she says.

This weekend, the museum's Mikhailovsky Castle site, for example, will be one of the sites used to entertain world leaders.

Ticket test

If the Russian Museum is being better advertised these days, one aspect which has caused resentment among many foreign tourists will remain the same: there are no plans to close the wide gap in ticket prices charged to Russians and foreigners.

"Russians have no money and cannot pay," Mrs Muravyova flatly explains.

"Foreigners pay what they would be charged at the Louvre."

Cultural and diplomatic centre St Petersburg may be, but as a world tourist destination it, like the rest of Russia, still has much to learn.

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